Another Misguided Attempt at Making all Things Equal

April 24, 2006

Writers Group column for April 26 and thereafter
740 words

By Andrea Neal

     INDIANAPOLIS — A couple of students in my class get “As” all the time and their peers are getting jealous. It’s time to level the playing field. From now on, I will handicap all students who receive a 95 or higher by multiplying their score by 90 percent. That way, a grade of 100 will actually be a 90, a 99 will be an 89, and so on.
     While I’m at it, I’d like to give the “B” students a morale boost. So I will multiply all grades between 80 and 90 by 1.1. A student who receives an 88 on a test will get a 97; a score of 91 will be a perfect 100.
     Sound crazy? You bet. And yet that’s close to what the Indiana High School Athletic Association will consider on May 1. A proposal before the IHSAA board would multiply the enrollment of non-public schools by 1.5 for determining class sports placement. That way, a football powerhouse such as Cathedral High School in Indianapolis will move from 4A to 5A; the elite Park Tudor School (a single-class tennis power but certainly no football dynasty) will shift from A to 2A.
     The reasoning for the change is about as sound as mine for handicapping Straight-A students. The private schools win a disproportionate share of state championship titles and that’s unfair. By making them compete in a larger-school class, it will help level the playing field.
     The idea is discriminatory, perhaps unconstitutional. What amazes me is that so many educators advocate it with a straight face.
     “What we’re saying is non-public schools can control their enrollment where public schools must take every student in our districts, and I’m glad we do,” said Janice Bergeson, principal at New Palestine High School, one of the three schools in the Hoosier Heritage Conference that introduced the plan.
     Football is a case in point. In Class 4A, private schools comprise 4.8 percent of the members, but 28.6 percent of the champions. In 3A, they are 16.1 percent of the class, but 81 percent of the champions. “When you look at the discrepancy, it’s so lopsided,” Bergeson says.
     For purposes of disclosure, I teach at a private school, but it stops at 8th Grade so I have no personal interest in this fight. For me, and I suspect most Hoosiers, it’s a matter of principle. Should we handicap children based on real or perceived differences, whether in natural ability, training regimens or affluence? And if we do so in sports, shouldn’t we do the same with math contests and spelling bees, debates and musical competitions?
     This is not a public versus private school issue. It’s about resources and the willingness of schools and parents to invest countless hours and dollars in elementary school and league sports, intensive training, private coaches and conditioning.
     It’s true that some Catholic schools –- not all of them wealthy — take football more seriously than catechism. It’s true that most children at inner-city schools couldn’t afford to pay $40 a week for 30 minutes in a batting cage. Is the remedy to try and equalize outcomes, or does it make more sense to try and equalize opportunity? A more meaningful solution would be to launch a foundation to raise athletic training money for schools with high poverty rates.
     At its May 1 meeting, the IHSAA board will consider an alternative proposal by Fort Wayne South Side High School Principal Thomas Smith and Athletic Director Jerry Amstutz. This one comes closer to addressing the resources gap. Their plan would adjust enrollment by different multipliers based on a school’s percentage of children on free or reduced price lunch. The wealthiest schools would move into larger-school divisions in some sports, while the poorest schools would move down. “I think this issue is going to be addressed in some way,” Smith says.
     No doubt about that. Alabama and Missouri already have multipliers that affect private schools and public schools without geographical enrollment boundaries. Illinois just implemented a new formula, and Georgia’s was just voted out. In a few states, including Texas and Virginia, private and public schools don’t even compete for the same championships.
     Whatever the IHSAA does, it shouldn’t penalize children. A multiplier that treats them differently hurts both public and non-public students who understand one fundamental sports principle, even if adults don’t. A championship doesn’t mean as much if you’re not competing against the best.
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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